Inside Newtown High School’s cafeteria on the evening of Monday, February 10, two groups of students faced off in a “USA vs Russia” foam hockey game.
As NHS Guidance Counselor Jeff Tolson pointed out, the gold medal from the game was not going to go to the first place team or player, but instead it would be given out to distinguish the players with the best sportsmanship.
It was one of the many exercises completed by students in the REACH (Resiliency, Empathy, Acceptance, Confidence, Hope) Newtown program, and one of three workshops offered February 10. That night had an Olympics theme.
Mr Tolson, Adam Carley and Charles “Cap” Pryor oversaw the three parts of the REACH program. According the program’s website, Mr Carley is REACH’s executive director of Peak Academy, director of REACH Ascension, and REACH curriculum co-leader. Mr Tolson is REACH’s director of the mentorship program and the curriculum co-leader. Mr Pryor is the academic and creative arts leader for the REACH Newtown team.
But, Mr Tolson said, REACH is not about its leaders, it is about the students.
And for each REACH Newtown program meeting, students in second through eighth grades are paired with mentors in ninth through twelfth grades. Those mentors work with the younger students during an exercise session, a homework session, and an art session for each meeting.
REACH also has “field trips” or “REACH out expeditions” scheduled for weekends, said Mr Carley, but, mostly, the students meet twice a week in the evenings after school. REACH initially met at NYA Sports & Fitness Center, but Mr Carley said the high school offered a larger space for the now full program. The current session of REACH will run through mid-March. Another is set to run between March and June.
According to REACH’s website (ReachNewtown.org), its mission is to promote a sense of compassion, empathy, integrity, and social accountability among children while preventing any child from feeling alone, forgotten, undervalued, bullied, or hopeless.
“I think it is great,” said Maggie Wruck, a junior at NHS who said she has been volunteering with Mr Tolson through different activities since she was in eighth grade.
Maggie and Brittany Bucci, another NHS student, walked the hallways between the three sessions, assisting Mr Tolson, Mr Carley and Mr Pryor.
While students worked on homework with mentors to help them, Mr Carley explained that at the end of the February 10 REACH evening, the students would be offered an Olympic Ceremony, complete with a handmade torch.
The big project, Mr Carley said, is to have the REACH students take part in many different activities. Other themes and activities have included building rockets, writing songs, and a focus on robots.
While REACH works mainly through Newtown schools, Mr Carley said it relies on grants and volunteers. Fundraisers are also held.
While the program is currently unable to accept any more students, due to its popularity, Mr Carley said people can check the program’s website for any future updates on availability.
A Platform For Relationships
REACH, Mr Carley said, is a platform for relationships. All around him on February 10, high school students huddled close to their mentorees. Smiles were displayed frequently despite the level of homework the students were accomplishing.
“You can tell they genuinely love this,” Mr Carley said, adding, “It blows my mind that they have already figured out that kind of selfless giving.”
Inside a high school art room, Mr Pryor was overseeing the students creating their own flags, again working off of the evening’s Olympics theme.
Mr Pryor noted how fast the older students are capable of bonding with the younger students in ways adults sometimes find it hard to do. The energy level and the “profound manner the students can connect” are two things Mr Pryor pointed out as aspects to the REACH program.
“It’s awesome,” Mr Pryor said. “It’s unbelievable what we see in here.”
One previous art project completed by REACH students was an “if you can imagine it, you can create it” exercise. Students had been asked to draw something from their imagination, then with the help of their mentors the students created those imaginings. The students created things like a robot with rainbow hair, a round, blue one-eyed creature, an NHS football player under mini working lights, and a small tree strung with lights and googly eyes.
As an instructor with REACH, Mr Pryor said he witnesses the excitement on students faces as they arrive for each session of the program.
Mr Carley said he knows the relationships formed between the mentors and the mentorees makes a difference. It offers a constant person in the lives of the younger students, Mr Carley said.